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Monday, September 27, 2021

The Deeply Personal Horror of “Midnight Mass” – Guest Essay by Filmmaker Mike Flanagan

Midnight Mass has been part of me for so long, it’s difficult to remember when exactly it started. There has probably never been a project more personal to me. Its journey to the screen was very long, I’ve changed enormously since I began working on it (as has the world in general) and as of this writing, it’s the single most rewarding professional experience of my life. 

I don’t remember the first time I started thinking about the doomed residents of Crockett Island, but I recently dug up the pages from my first stab at a Midnight Mass novel from early 2010. I have also found pages from an attempt at a feature script dated May 2012, before I quit my job as a reality TV show editor and began prepping Oculus – my first “real” movie – later that summer. 

I have a more advanced screenplay from 2013, and I remember the moment when I realized it wasn’t going to work: I was well over 150 pages into the draft, Riley Flynn and Father Paul Hill were having their first consequential conversation about alcohol (this would later become their first “AA meeting” scene). 150 pages is longer than most finished screenplays and I wasn’t even close to midpoint yet. This thing was always too big to be a movie. 

First attempts to imagine it as a series go back to 2014, and I remember the fear when I shared my pile of unfinished pages with Trevor Macy and Jeff Howard for the first time. Trevor had produced Oculus and Before I Wake at that point, both of which I’d co-written with Jeff, but neither knew Mass existed. It was the project I clung to the hardest, a story so personal to me that I was reluctant to share it at first, even with my most trusted and frequent collaborators. But my agents were keen to get us into television, a medium exploding with daring, unique long-form storytelling opportunities – so I turned over the abandoned screenplay, the abandoned novel, and the rough television pitch outline and went to work developing Midnight Mass as a television series.

We took the pitch out in 2014, taking almost a dozen meetings at networks around town, where I nervously performed a well-rehearsed, 45-minute presentation. We had printed maps of Tangier, Virginia, which was the primary inspiration for Crockett Island itself. Images of crosses, revival services, and it was a perfectly fine presentation, if a little green around the edges, but one by one, each of those networks passed. 

That was my first experience in television, and it was hardly unusual. It was fun, truth be told, and even though we were disappointed that no one wanted to make the show, it was exciting to be in the rooms. We didn’t know it then, but it would all come back around. In fact, when we pitched Midnight Mass at Netflix in 2014, the young executive who sat across the table was Blair Fetter. He didn’t buy Midnight Mass that day, but a few years later I’d sit across from him again with another television pitch for The Haunting of Hill House. Netflix would buy that show, and it would change my life forever. 

In between, Midnight Mass never left my mind. In 2015, I began filming a little indie feature called Hush. I’d written it with my girlfriend, Kate Siegel. We’d be married the following year, embarking on what would be the collaboration of our lives, but for now we were focused on making a tiny movie that was an intense crucible for us as artists and as a couple. 

We needed to come up with a book for Kate’s character Maddie Young to have written. It was a little bittersweet when the idea struck that it should be Midnight Mass. Why not, I figured: this might be as close as that story would ever get to being made. (The fact that Kate ended up playing Erin Greene in Midnight Mass is particularly delightful to me now.)

We printed up a mock cover for Midnight Mass. We needed footage of Maddie actually writing her book, so I just pulled up my abandoned novel and gave the first chapter to the props department. I still smile watching Kate typing on her laptop in that movie, talking about the “Jesus fish” on the back of the luxury car (from the novel’s prologue, detailing Riley’s drunk driving accident – that ichthys is now the first image of the series). I also get a real kick out of watching Samantha Sloyan (who will later play Bev Keane in Midnight Mass) as Maddie’s doomed neighbor Sarah, telling her how much she “loved Riley, and loved Erin” when reading her fictional novel.  

More than a year later, in October 2016, we began filming Gerald’s Game. In Stephen King’s novel, there is a shelf above the protagonist’s head as she lays handcuffed for the duration of the story, and on that shelf are a few items – a glass of water, a magazine, and various knickknacks. A book. I knew immediately I wanted that book to be Midnight Mass. Jessie – played by the amazing Carla Gugino – would reach up and grab the book at a pivotal moment, throwing it at a feral dog as it approached the body of her deceased husband. A “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, but for a few more seconds, Midnight Mass was still alive.

A crew member asked me, after we shot that scene, what Midnight Mass was. I smiled and said it was the best thing I never made. 

I was raised Catholic. My father grew up in the fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had left those grey waters for a life at sea with the Coast Guard, so we moved around a fair bit. I served as an altar boy at Our Lady, Star of the Sea on Governors Island, New York. Governors Island is a tiny community, 172 acres located 800 yards south of Manhattan. It was a Coast Guard base when I lived there, and we were stationed there twice in my childhood. The island is abandoned now, Our Lady, Star of the Sea is in disrepair, but it is still a beautiful chapel, nestled on this tiny island that was part of a big city – but somehow felt like its own tiny, isolated little world. 

The majority of my childhood was spent in Bowie, Maryland where I attended Saint Pius X elementary school, then Archbishop Spalding High School, and was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Parish. I served most of my masses in the fine, modern “main church,” but was always fascinated by the “Chapel on the Hill” – a tiny, historic building up a winding path in the woods. 

The Chapel on the Hill was built in 1741 when it was illegal to worship publicly as a Catholic. It was partially destroyed in a fire in 1853 and rebuilt in 1856. It was surrounded by a cemetery that must be one of the oldest in Maryland, and after serving masses in the Chapel I’d wander the gravestones. I remember seeing faded, weathered stones dating back to the late 1700s. I remember seeing gravestones for children. I remember seeing gravestones for one entire family, all with the same year of death. Oh, the stories I’d imagine. 

I was a good altar boy, devout, studious, appropriately serious for my age. I liked church. I learned how to harmonize while singing along with the choir every Sunday (I was fortunate enough to add my voice to many of these same hymns as they appear in Midnight Mass, rendered beautifully by The Newton Brothers), though I preferred the acoustic folk group who performed the less formal masses. 

My parish was presided over by several priests as I grew up. The first was an old Irish Monsignor, tough as nails, who would later succumb to Alzheimer’s. The anxiety that the parish felt at his deterioration and eventual replacement hangs heavily in the early moments of this show, and I do recall the altar boys intervening to steer him gently through moments of the mass, as Warren describes in the pilot. The second was a young priest, progressive and casual by comparison, who was funny and sharp and endlessly approachable.

Both were good, honorable men who practiced what they preached, crafted some roaring homilies, served their community and lived lives dedicated to morality, decency, kindness and God, at least as they understood Him. They were good men. The horrifying and indefensible scandals that rocked the Catholic Church worldwide did not touch the parish in which I grew up, I believe, and for that I will always be grateful.

I served on the altar until I left for college, and it was there that I began to discover the world outside of the Catholic Faith. I took my first World Religion course my freshman year, and it blew my mind. I realized that, for as many years as I attended weekly mass, and despite a life spent in Catholic school, I actually understood very little about Catholicism. It occurred to me that I’d never actually read the bible; I’d simply had portions of it read to me every week at church, or select readings assigned and discussed at school. But I’d never read the book myself. I decided to remedy that. I decided to look for God.

So I read the Bible. And then I kept reading. If I was going to look for God, I was going to look everywhere. I devoted myself to studying Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. I connected pretty intensely with Buddhism for a few years in there, even seeking out temples in Los Angeles as I tried to further explore it, but ultimately the book that impacted me the most was God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. That led to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. But I found more spiritual resonance reading Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan than I found in two decades of Bible study.

I was energized by these years of research, suddenly looking back at my childhood full of questions. There was anger there, certainly. But there was hunger for knowledge as well. I was struck by how vastly different the religions of the world were, but also how uncannily similar… and I was struck again by how vulnerable they were to fanaticism and fundamentalism. How easily a religion supposedly built on love could be made to breed hate. 

And it wasn’t just about religion – I was struck as well by how fundamentalist thinking could permeate and corrupt any belief system. How it could appear and spread within the scientific community as well. Nationalism. Politics. The media. How easily faith could be weaponized against the faithful. How incentivized we could be made to believe something in the absence of evidence – or, even more disturbing, in the presence of contradictory fact. I was horrified at how this cognitive dissonance was, in some circles, presented as a virtue. 

My feelings about religion were very complicated. I was fascinated, but angry. Looking at various religions, I was moved and amazed by their propensity for forgiveness and faith, but horrified by their exclusionism, tribalism, and tendency toward fanaticism and fundamentalism. I found a lot of these various religions’ ideas to be inspiring and beautiful, but I also found their corruptions to be grotesque and unforgivable. I wasn’t going to support those kinds of institutions any longer. I was only interested in humanism, rationalism, science… and empathy.

I was also, it turned out, an alcoholic. 

Alcoholism had run fairly rampant on both sides of my extended family. Both of my parents had warned me growing up that I may be more susceptible to it than I wanted to think. I had also emerged from college as a pretty serious problem drinker, though I was years away from admitting that to myself. 

It’s fascinating to me, looking back at early drafts of Midnight Mass, just how plainly my own issues with alcohol were driving the story. Riley Flynn, former altar boy turned atheist, stares through bloodshot eyes at the car accident he caused, watching an innocent teenager die on the pavement because he drove drunk. And this is how we meet the protagonist. Riley was always a thinly disguised surrogate, an avatar unlikely to fool anyone except myself, who wouldn’t admit how much I had in common with my own character for many years. 

My relationship with alcohol was not at all healthy. I’d be able to drink excessively without consequence 9 times out of 10 (at first anyway), but man, that tenth time… the apologetic phone calls were almost as bad as the hangovers. Once the booze took over, I learned – repeatedly – that I had some truly self-destructive impulses. Riley says he felt like he had another self, a saboteur who emerged from within when he drank too much, and that’s exactly how I felt when I was in the grips of it. 

I let this go on far too long, quick to deny it was a problem even as it led to increasingly self-destructive behavior. It cost friendships, it damaged relationships, and it would have killed me – or worse, it would have killed someone else. That was always the nightmare scenario, and that was why my most personal story – Midnight Mass, the story I could never entirely put down – opened the way it did. It faded in on my worst, most ingrained anxiety: not that I would die because of my drinking, but that I would kill someone else… and live

As I write this, I’m nearly three years sober and profoundly grateful that I was able to recognize my problem before it cost me my family, my career, or even my life, all of which were at risk at one time or another. All of that is in this show as well. All of that turmoil, regret and shame, all rolled up in the rest of it – the beauty of forgiveness and faith, set against the corruption of fanaticism. That feeling that we are alone in the cosmos, at war with the wish that we aren’t. The danger of moral certainty, the frailty of good intentions, and the defiant endurance of faith itself, even in the face of annihilation. 

That even in the worst of it, in the absence of light – and hope – we sing

Now, all we had to do was somehow get this show made. A modern parable about belief, addiction, recovery, redemption, fanaticism and forgiveness is a tough sell by anyone’s math, even if it is a horror show. Fortunately for me, Netflix was willing to take that risk.

The Haunting of Hill House was a surprise hit. It had been a grueling production experience, in many ways the opposite of Midnight Mass. The show had nearly killed a lot of us. I’d lost more than 40 pounds while shooting, every day was a battle, sometimes for the bare essentials, and often fought without hope or witness. While the final product is something I will always be enormously proud of, it remains the worst professional experience of my life. 

And when the show was finished, there was no real way to know how it would land. It actually came as a big surprise when the show emerged as a hit. Everyone seemed surprised – Netflix, Paramount Television, Amblin – suddenly the world changed, the audience kept growing, and my career in television – which I feared was dead on arrival after that production wrapped – was now a viable reality.

Netflix was interested in an overall deal, which would mean that Trevor Macy – who I was now partnered with in Intrepid Pictures – and I would make television exclusively for Netflix for the next four years. It meant they’d want more shows, and that we’d have more control over the process this time. And it meant a new life for Midnight Mass

I sat at a table one day with Trevor and with Blair Fetter once again, and now also Laura Delahaye, who had been one of our executives on Hill House. Blair and Laura had spearheaded getting us into Netflix in an overall deal and were taking point on our slate, and we were laying out our agenda for the first few years together. 

The first priority would be The Haunting of Bly Manor, the follow-up season that was at the center of the table as we negotiated our new deal with our new home streamer. But with that was also Midnight Mass. We all laughed at the fact that Blair had passed on this show years earlier. They were both very excited, though, that we’d be moving forward with it now. And with Bly Manor in the pipeline and our next few years securely set at Netflix, Blair and Laura championed the project to Peter Friedlander and Cindy Holland. After years of uncertainty, Netflix greenlit Midnight Mass.

The Bly Manor Writers’ Room opened in the Spring of 2019. It was on Lankershim in Hollywood, and I spent my mornings there getting that show into shape. I’d leave after lunch, drive ten minutes up the road to another office on Cahuenga, where the Midnight Mass Writers’ Room was running concurrently. Those days of going back and forth between the two rooms were intense and disorienting, but we managed to get both shows into fighting shape throughout 2019 while I finished post-production on Doctor Sleep for Warner Bros.

We began filming Bly in Vancouver in the fall of 2019. I was only directing one episode of that series, though, because I needed to be laying the groundwork for Midnight Mass. On weekends I’d scout locations, refine the scripts, and gear up for the looming production. The plan was that Bly would wrap in February 2020, and we’d roll right into Midnight Mass that March without missing a beat.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find an existing community that would work for Crockett Island. The islands near Vancouver were either too developed to give us the feel we wanted, or too distant and challenging for the crew to access. It was clear we’d have to build Crockett. Every structure, every road, every streetlight – every little thing. 

And we were building it, quietly, while Bly was shooting. We took over a huge portion of Garry Point Park in Richmond, building our Crockett houses on the shoreline. Locals were curious (and a little irritated) about this installment of houses right in the middle of their park, and we’d use their fishing port as our marina as well. The rest of Crockett’s exteriors were built on a farm in Langley, an hour away from our stages at Bridge Studios, which housed our interior sets. 

To be honest, I’m still astounded by what we built. Steve Arnold, our Production Designer, essentially created a living, breathing island community out of nothing. Every single element you see on the show is his design – there was no Crockett. He built it all. And walking among it, working in it for so long, I realized how immersive and unique this show could be. 

Our structures were standing, the paint still drying, the cast had traveled in, we’d done a table read of all 7 episodes that had the cast in tears by the end… we were ready to go. 

And then the world shut down.

We were days away from shooting when COVID-19 shut down Canada. Around us, productions closed at breakneck pace. And then the call came from Netflix that we would be shutting down, hopefully for just a few weeks. I remember looking out the window of the plane as I flew home to Los Angeles on the day the border closed. From the air, I could look down and see Gary Pointe Park. I could see our buildings, along the edge of the water. I could see Crockett Island, standing abandoned as I was leaving it behind. 

No one knew what would happen next. It was entirely possible that Netflix would just cancel the show, write off what we’d spent so far, cut our losses and turn to something else. It would cost more, we knew, for them to get it back up. More money than they’d initially wanted to spend on this show. Would they want to keep it going at all? Or was this project doomed to be the one we just never could get off its feet? 

For months, we waited. The uncertainty was overwhelming, and I knew the cast and crew were feeling it too. There were a lot of phone calls, and lot of hypotheticals, but frankly no one knew what production would look like in this new world. There were many days I was convinced the show was dead, and that the next time the phone rang it would be to tell us the bad news. 

But then, in early June of 2020, the call came in that we’d be going back to Vancouver, and that Midnight Mass would essentially be one of the first Netflix shows to go back up in this new COVID reality. It was surreal. We would be helping define what production looked like in this new world, we would be the tip of the spear in establishing and refining the new protocols. I was back on a plane in late June 2020 and landed in a completely different industry. 

Our sets were still standing but weathered by months in the elements. Months of exposure, weather, and overgrowth that only made them better. Because we had limits on the number of people we could put on the show, the concept of the oil spill having decimated Crockett in the years prior was added to the story to help explain why it was so unpopulated. This was entirely about COVID, we couldn’t have extras on set at the beginning, and we didn’t know when or if that would change. But it added something to the story, and the world of Crockett actually deepened because of it. 

We started shooting on August 17, 2020. Weeks before other productions, who would get headlines for “resurrecting Vancouver production,” had even gotten off the ground. We were the test case; we were the canary in the coal mine for Netflix. We learned how to navigate COVID in real time. We held our breath, we were terrified every day of shutting down, and kept our heads down and we worked.

And it was the best production experience of my life. 

This cast, this crew… I don’t know if anything will ever come close to what this was. To what this meant to me. This was a profoundly positive experience, every day, even when it was hard. We wrapped on December 15, 2020, and we didn’t shut down one time. Not one day. And every day on set was a gift. 

A lot has changed since I first wrote about that ichthys on the back of the car, reflecting siren light. I’ve changed, the world has changed, the industry has changed. This show was conceived by a young man in the grips of barely functional alcoholism, a complicated anger at organized religion, and a growing interest in forgiveness and humanism. That filmmaker has changed a lot in the decade since that story started and began filming this story as a sober husband and father. The way we watch television has changed, the industry has changed, the world has changed. 

I don’t believe in miracles in the way they’re described in the Bible. But I do believe in miracles in a different way. The miracles in our lives, some we make, some simply happen to us. The miracles of parenthood, of creation, of growth, and of forgiveness. This show is a miracle, I do believe that. It’s a tiny, fragile bubble, and it clung on for years and years, finally coming into existence quietly, delicately in between moments of seismic, continental shifts in our world. 

I’m so glad that it exists, and I’m so grateful to all the amazing artists who built it out of nothing. I’m grateful to Laura Delahaye and Blair Fetter for championing and greenlighting the project, and I’m grateful to Blair for passing on it those years ago when it honestly wasn’t ready. I’m grateful to my wife Kate Siegel, who saved my life and who built my heaven on Earth. To my entire cast, which remains the best ensemble I’ve ever worked with, and who are now family to me. To my cinematographer Michael Fimognari, whom I consider my brother, and who has outdone himself and crafted something unforgettable. To my actual brother James Flanagan, who poured as much of his self and childhood into these scripts as I did. And to my partner Trevor Macy, himself an artist and creator, who has been steadfast in willing this show into existence for years, and who built it in the dirt with all of us in what I know was probably the most challenging producing experience of his career. 

I’m grateful to the many people, both in the cast and on the crew, some of whom I’ve worked with before – some many times – over the years, and who all gave career-best work in service of this story, lifting each other up, challenging each other daily, setting the bar ever higher for us all. 

I think back on those various past versions of myself, all of whom touched and shaped this story at different times along the way, with their anger, their fear, their addiction, their existential crises. All of those versions of me are in conversation with each other on this show – the altar boy, the atheist, the scientist, the believer, the moderate, the student, the parent, the child, the alcoholic – and I am grateful for all of them. There was so much I wanted to say, every time I sat down to type about the people of Crockett Island; so much I thought I knew, so much I didn’t know. 

It’s a funny and beautiful thing when a story takes on a life of its own. It hasn’t happened often in my experience, but man oh man, it happened here. It took all these years, in fact, for me to realize that Riley Flynn – my most imperfect avatar – wasn’t even the star of this story after all.

Religion, I believe, is one of the ways we attempt to answer the two Great Questions that ache within us all: “how shall we live,” and “what happens when we die.” I don’t know the answer to the second question (although my thoughts, wishes, and even my best guess are articulated in this show), but Midnight Mass has, over the years, helped me at least begin to answer that first question. I hope you enjoy Midnight Mass, and I wish you all love, luck, and forgiveness on your journeys beyond. 

And if you happen to think on those two Great Questions, do let me know if you figure them out. I’d love to know the answers, though I expect I never will, not really. As far as I can tell, though, the second question only matters in how it affects the first. 


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